The Arc of the Moral Universe

The Arc of the Moral Universe

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Published:
June 4, 2020

There is familiar proverb that states “time heals all wounds”. The thought being of course that the passage of time will rectify whatever ills one may be facing. With enough hours, the sting of pain diminishes. As days go by, scars fade. While it’s catchy and many people quote it often, this saying misrepresents what actually happens when healing takes place. It makes it seem as if healing is this passive thing. As if there’s some magic merely in the amount of passing seconds. You can do nothing and healing will take place. Anyone with a working knowledge of biology knows this to be false. Your body actually puts in a lot of work to make you whole after an injury. Your systems, especially your immune system and circulatory system, are actively trying to ferry cells towards the site of the wound to repair and rebuild. Yes, the process takes time. But it isn’t time itself that is doing the healing. Healing is an active process.

In one of his most famous speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s a beautiful sentiment that evokes the idea that, with the passage of enough time, ills will be resolved and wrongs will be righted. This imagery was borrowed from a much longer quote by abolitionist Theodore Parker who stated, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” In each of these metaphors, we are assured by the fact that, despite the end being beyond our sight, justice will be achieved. We accept this by faith. As time passes, a righteous outcome is inevitable.

This is definitely fitting within our theology. Revelation 21 teaches that one day Christ will return and make all things new – we have this hope. And yet, elsewhere in the Word, we are admonished to prosper and be in health in the present (John 3). Christ stated that He came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10). And the context of that phraseology suggests that it wasn’t an idea limited to the future, but to the present situation of the hearers. There is a long arc of morality, true, but that doesn’t mean that justice should be neglected in the short term.

In fact, several passages tell us that God is concerned with justice here and now. Micah 6:8 calls it part of the “good” we are explicitly “shown to do”. In Isaiah 58, God quite clearly chastises the People of God for neglecting this. The fasts and ceremonies and worship services are just performative and quite frankly distasteful to God in light of the fact that the most important things that they’ve been told to focus on have nothing to do with liturgy and rituals and traditions. Instead they should have been liberating the oppressed and marginalized. The people of God are supposed to ensure justice in the present day. And they are to actively bring it to pass.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder alluded to this point in a 2016 reference to the moral arc saying, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” Justice is achieved by the concerted efforts of individuals deciding to work towards it. And those who are called to do that work are God’s own.

One of my favorite hymns is “Take My Life and Let It Be”. Across two verses, we implore God to “Take my hands, and let them move/ At the impulse of Thy love/ Take my feet and let them be/ Swift and beautiful for Thee; Take my voice, and let me sing/ Always, only, for my King/ Take my lips, and let them be/ Filled with messages from Thee”. We offer up parts of our own body to be directed by Divine will. We are the hands and feet and voice and lips of God as we actively seek to carry out the desires of God. I can visualize God’s hands – our hands – reaching up and purposefully bending the arc of justice so that it can be demonstrated here in the 21st century.

I have to say that I’ve been alarmed in the past few weeks. Of course the news of George Floyd’s murder was devastatingly traumatic. It compounded the already existing pain of centuries of marginalization and discrimination faced by Black people. The wounds of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey were still fresh. And like salt, Amy Cooper’s blatant display of racism in Central Park had just further aggravated the injury. Already reeling from these disturbing events, I was not prepared for what followed. I noted several people were posting justifications for why Christians needed to be involved in social justice. I thought to myself, why would such declarations be necessary? Surely there aren’t still people who doubt that the church needs to take an active role in speaking against these atrocities? And yet I heard my pastoral colleagues express trepidation about broaching the subject with their members. I was sorrowful as some reported negative reactions to their sermons from congregants who felt that this isn’t the church’s business. If it’s not our business then whose business is it?! Some of their members stepped down from leadership or dropped from the rolls entirely! They felt that the church should stay out of race relations and were offended when their ministers brought it up. For some reason, they fail to recognize that part of the church – their Black sisters and brothers – don’t have the luxury to “stay out of it”. We live it. We don’t have the luxury to choose to be passionately disengaged. Because it could be us. It could be me. Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and several others were people of faith too. The congregations they belong to are left to mourn their losses. The church is not isolated from this. Being emotionally invested in the pursuit of equity is not optional for Black Christians because it affects our day-to-day existence. Achieving justice is literally a matter of life and death for us. For our white brothers and sisters to dismiss social justice as a discretionary side project is a total disregard for human life. Our lives. And it dishonors the mandate we all have to be the Hands and Feet of Christ.

Our nonblack brothers and sisters in Christ can’t merely be content to say “I’m not racist” and believe that dispenses with any obligation they may have towards seeking justice. That is a passive stance. Everyone must commit to be antiracist. Antiracism is actively, decidedly calling out racism and attempting to eradicate it.

Antiracism starts by acknowledging that racism exists and that it is not just relegated to overt demonstrations such as extrajudicial murder. Yes, that is one obvious manifestation of racism. But what leads to those types of blatant, heinous acts begins with subtle biases and stereotypes that are so ingrained they are almost imperceptible. It’s crucial to understand that our entire society was built on principles of inequality – so much so that it seems natural. And for that reason, correcting those inequalities will feel uneasy. It should. It has to. If you’re serious about dismantling racism, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The work of justice also means talking less and listening more to the stories of those who are marginalized. Placing oneself in the position of the learner acknowledges that you may not have all the answers, which can be a foreign position for some people who are used to occupying a space of privilege. It’s necessary to recognize that “privilege” is not a dirty word. People are not “bad” for having privilege. But it has to be acknowledged before that privilege can be used for good. This is in contrast to weaponizing privilege against Black people like Amy Cooper did when she very intentionally chose to lie to the police to say that Christian Cooper was threatening her life, when he had only asked her to leash her dog. She was not in denial of her privilege. She recognized and embraced it: she selected her words carefully emphasizing that Christian was an African American man threatening her. But it’s possible to turn privilege into a tool for peace, like the line of White women who locked arms to protect demonstrators in Kentucky. Then, real positive changes can begin to occur.

You can learn more about tangible actions that you can take by reaching out to organizations doing advocacy work, like Adventists for Social Justice, Color of Change, and Campaign Zero. Learn about the past and present history of Civil Rights – and not just the sanitized version. Research steps that you can engage in, such as those found here and here. But one of the most valuable things you can do – that only you can do – is to influence your circle to discard bigoted behaviors. Call out problematic jokes, or patterns or assumptions. Challenge your loved ones to become antiracist too.

Amid all this we are still grappling with the impacts of COVID 19. It is a devastating killer. The illness disrupted billions of lives in countless ways. For those who only felt its effects minimally, one of their greatest concerns was getting back to “normal”, including resuming traditional church services. But if there was any collateral benefit, it was that the pandemic disrupted our usual flow of doing church. We needed to halt all the rituals we cling to. In taking that pause we could focus on one of the tasks of the faithful many have neglected: grasping the arc with God’s hands and actively making it bend towards justice and healing.

“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, asif they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:2-6)

 

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: 

https://spectrummagazine.org/author/courtney-ray 

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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